No, Monk: The Lost Files
isn't a master tape drummer Clarence Penn found stuck behind the stacks at the Library of Congress. But the story is just as good.
The way Clarence tells it, a glass of wine at his son's second birthday party led to a computer dysfunction that ate some tape he desperately wanted to keep. Penn had recorded a rhythmic reimagining of Monk tunes, as an experiment with his Penn Station colleagues Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on sax, pianist Donald Vega, Gerald Clayton on Fender Rhodes and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. The session went so well he wanted to keep it. But when he sat down at his computer, after the party, to back up the files, one touch to wrong key - and the recordings vanished.
"I sat there looking at the computer screen thinking that it had to be a bad dream, but when I looked in the trash... nothing was there!" Penn recalls. "I was in a dark place." Penn had given up hope of recovering the session when he got an unexpected call from the engineer, who - lo and behold- still had copies. Thankfully so. For Penn, and for all of us.
The album's beauty is found in the way it unpacks the rhythmic potential inherent in Monk's compositions, and infuses the band with this spirit: Penn's approach makes the songs less angular, and more approachable to a contemporary ear. This generates excitement that sustains the session with a sense of expectation. There is a variety in the approaches Penn takes to the pinnacle of Monk - from his odd-meter adaptation and vocal samples of the album's opener, "Well, You Needn't," to the laid-back, neo-soul feel of "Friday the 13th." Gerald Clayton's electric piano on "In Walked Bud" paints a cinematic soundscape that evokes - to me, at least - Bud Powell emerging like Batman from the mists of night on 52nd Street.
The album confirms Monk's songs still offer musicians room to move, and they have as much or more to say now as they did on that night long ago.